116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — State traffic enforcement officials are pitching a highway safety message with an urgency like Iowans’ lives depend on it.
So far this year, there have been 144 people die in traffic crashes on Iowa roadways heading into three of the deadliest months historically during the peak summertime travel period.
A coalition of enforcement, transportation and safety groups are making a concerted effort in the second half of 2021 to make this the first year in nearly a century that deaths due to motor vehicle crashes stay below 300. The last time that happened was in 1925 when Iowa recorded 261 traffic fatalities.
"We hope people can understand that this is probably the most dangerous thing that you do any single day is getting behind the wheel of a vehicle," said Bob Conrad, a senior Iowa State Patrol trooper based out of the agency's District 11 office in Cedar Rapids. He said stepped-up efforts to persuade vehicle operators to slow down, wear seat belts, drive defensively and stay sober and undistracted only work if there is buy-in from the motoring public.
One year ago. Iowa was just coming out of a COVID-19 pandemic-induced slowdown in travel activity that had lowered the traffic death toll to 112 when the Fourth of July holiday arrived, according to Iowa Department of Transportation data. Yet there still were five Independence Day weekend fatalities — four due to impairment from alcohol — and a spike in traffic deaths for July, August and September meant Iowa finished 2020 with 337 fatalities. That was only slightly below the five-year average despite the pandemic.
Patrick Hoye, chief of the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau and chair of the recently formed Iowa Traffic Fatality Reduction Task Force, is hoping the state can do better this year with the help of stepped-up enforcement and social media messages aimed at changing driver behavior after a spate of citations leveled at people doing over 100 mph.
"I think it’s an ongoing process," said Hoye, who was encouraged by "some very positive steps" in focusing more attention on safe driving.
"Unfortunately, the excessive speed is still occurring. It remains an issue that we’re asking all of our law enforcement partners to address," Hoye noted. But he added, "we’re obviously optimistic that driver behavior can be modified and we can get under 300 this year. It’s a lofty goal but it’s certainly worth fighting for when you’re talking traffic fatalities."
The problem isn't just confined to Iowa, said Hoye, who talks regularly with traffic safety officials in neighboring states who report similar issues. "It is a national issue that we are trying to get a handle on," he said.
As a trooper monitoring Iowa's highways regularly, Conrad said there are still drivers who "got used to driving faster for some reason" during the pandemic when traffic counts were down. But he thinks the numbers slowly are starting to turn downward, with fewer instances of vehicles clocked at 100 mph or higher on roadways around the state.
State officials reported last month that law officers had written about 1,500 citations for drivers exceeding 100 mph on Iowa highways since the pandemic began influencing driving behaviors.
The latest Iowa DOT data also indicates the number of crashes involving drivers distracted by cellphones or electronic devices while operating motor vehicles declined in 2020. Last year's 945 crashes compared with 1,233 in 2016 that were tied to distracted driving, but four deaths still were attributed to crashes involving the use of cellphones or electronic devices — down from a peak of 14 such fatalities in 2015, according to state records.
"We believe those numbers are heavily underreported," said Hoye. "You don’t have to be in law enforcement, if you’re just sitting at a corner, it’s rare to see two or three cars go by without one of them with a cellphone in their hand."
Conrad said he also sees firsthand the results of Iowans who refuse to wear seat belts. So far this year, 44 of the state’s traffic deaths involved people not using belts.
And crashes associated with alcohol impairment remain a problem. Beginning Friday, law enforcement agencies across Iowa were participating in a national Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign through Monday to combat impaired driving with officers “exhibiting zero tolerance” for impaired drivers. Nationally, 198 people died during the 2019 July 4 holiday due to alcohol-related crashes.
This Independence Day holiday is expected to produce a heavy highway travel volume despite an increase in gasoline prices. AAA officials project that more than 91 percent of holiday travel will be by car.
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